I was thinking this morning of that old chestnut about “acting our age.” And of the British actress Rula Lenska and a television ad from the seventies that she did not make.

For the life of me I can’t think what product was presented in the ad I was remembering this morning… probably hair colour… because in the ad a woman speaks in a husky voice with an accent that in my mind sounds suspiciously like Rula Lenska. And she says coyly, “How old do you think I am?” And I always wanted to reply, “Who cares, Rula?” Except, as I said, it wasn’t Rula in the ad.

Let me explain. In the seventies, Rula Lenska appeared in a series of ads here in Canada and the U.S. for Alberto VO5 shampoo and conditioner. At the beginning of the ad she says: “I’m Rula Lenska.” But we none of us knew who the heck Rula Lenska was, which we thought made the ads hilarious. Then Johnny Carson added to that by asking one night in his monologue, “Who the hell is Rula Lenska?” and everyone laughed harder. Then Jane Curtin played her in a Saturday Night Live skit. So Rula ended up being famous here after all, just not for the right reasons. Poor Rula, and one imagines poor Alberto, must have regretted those ads with a passion.

But I’m digressing as I usually do. I didn’t want to talk about hair commercials, but about age. About why we’re so obsessed by our age. By how old we feel. Or how old we look. And by how old people might think we are. “How old do you think I am?” Seriously, “Who cares, Rula?”

Woman on a stream in New Brunswick holding a fish.
My sister acting her age.

That’s my sister above. She’s in her early seventies. And she recently went fishing for the first time since she was a kid.

My niece’s husband, Luc, is an avid fisherman and he volunteered to take her brook trout fishing. If you’re not familiar with brook trout fishing and with the Canadian bush, let me tell you that it’s not for the faint of heart. You have to make your way upstream, along a creek or brook, looking for the best pools that might hold trout. Be ready to crash through bushes, step over endless windfalls, sink into mud, and wade if the bank is impassable. And sometimes, when a bank collapses under you, you just slide right into the water. That happened to me a few years ago.

Brook trout fishing can be exhausting. Like a day-long step class. Remember step classes? And it can be frustrating. Your hook gets caught on bushes when you’re walking. Or when you’re casting. You have to struggle through the bushes to untangle it. Sometimes, depending on the season, it’s verrry buggy. And sometimes all that effort is for nothing.

But not the day Carolyn and Luc went fishing. They caught enough trout for Luc to fry up a lovely shore lunch on his camp stove. Yep, my sister had the full Canadian brook trout fishing experience. For the first time. At her age. Imagine!

My mum didn’t start haying with my step-father until she was in her seventies.

Mum went haying the first time because she was worried about Lloyd on the island in the heat of the day, doing everything himself. Where I grew up, farmers hay on a big island in the middle of the Saint John River. It’s flat and fertile and accessed by the farmer’s ferry which I used to help run as a teenager. When we were kids, Lloyd had my step-brother, and me, and lots of neighbourhood kids as helpers. But we’d all long since grown up and moved away.

So that first day, Mum went along to the island planning to sit in the shade and keep an eye on Lloyd, to exhort him to take a break, to remind him to drink water, and to lay out the lunch when the time came. But as it happened Lloyd gave her a quick tutorial on tractor driving. And despite the fact that she didn’t drive, she knew how but she’d always been too nervous, she took over the steering wheel while he stayed on the wagon and moved the hay around as it fell off the hay-loader into the wagon.

Mum said it was the best decision she ever made, to leave the housework undone that day and go over to the island to help Lloyd. She came home exhilarated. Proud of trying something new. And she continued as his driver and “main man” (as Lloyd put it) for years. Everyone was gobsmacked. Imagine. At her age!

So as I said above, I’ve been thinking this week of the idea of acting our age. And how my sister is not very good at it. And neither was Mum. But seriously, how is a seventy-something person supposed to act?

In a recent post about aging on Alyson Walsh’s blog That’s Not My Age, Adrienne Wyper writes about something called “subjective age.” She explains the differences between chronological age, mental age, and physical age. And talks a bit about some of the research that explains the impact of our “subjective age,” or how old we feel, on our physical wellness. You can read the post yourself here, if you like.

According to Adrienne’s research, feeling younger can help us buffer the damaging effects of stress. Keeping us healthy longer.

Okay.

But I don’t know how old I feel. Do you? And I don’t understand why it’s so important to be able to quantify how old I feel. Why do I have to put a number on it? Especially when the meaning of those numbers is always changing. Do I feel sixty? What does a sixty-year-old feel like? Do I feel fifty? When I was fifty, I didn’t feel much different than I had when I was in my thirties. In fact, I was probably in better physical condition at fifty than at thirty. I didn’t look as good. But I felt better. More confident and, as I said, more fit. So those numbers are kind of meaningless, aren’t they?

Not to mention the meaningless number that often follows perhaps the most stupid question ever posed: “How old do you think I am?”

We were talking about that question at lunch the other day. One friend related how an acquaintance had recently asked her, “How old do you think I am?” Gad. My friend was flummoxed. She knew she was expected to answer much younger than the person’s age, of which she wasn’t sure. Why else does someone ask that dreaded question? So she started with what she assumed was the person’s age, shaved off five years, and answered. Turns out she was bang on. Uh oh. Not the number the questioner was expecting. Ha. Serves her right for asking.

And please don’t get me started on how Martha Stewart was lauded recently for “looking so amazing” on the cover of Sports Illustrated in her swimsuit. At age eighty-one. Not to mention how she’s been lauded for continuing to expand her “billion dollar brand” and make more and more money, not slowing down in the least, if you believe the hype. I don’t understand why she should be lauded for continuing to do what she’s always done; she has a large and “loyal team” to help. Is continuing to expand one’s “brand” any more laudable than, say, taking up fishing or tractor-driving in your seventies?

Why is it that the media is so inclined to praise the older women who appear as if they have not changed, not slowed down, not altered their priorities, and probably most significant, not shown visible signs of aging? What’s wrong with changing, slowing down, starting down a new path, finding new and perhaps more rewarding paths? What’s wrong with looking older?

And then I read this article in The Daily Beast on the “internalized ageism” of the Sex and the City sequel And Just Like That. In a recent episode, Carrie attends an event to launch a magazine for women over sixty. She is gobsmacked to think that she might be considered as part of its target demographic. At the event, she recoils from the “women who use walking aids,” fearing that she might be considered as one of them. The article goes on to say that while the show depicts Carrie as ageist, in real life Sarah Jessica Parker shrugs off the industry pressure to resort to plastic surgery. It’s ironic, isn’t it, that the fictional Carrie is so afraid of that number 6-0, when the real Sarah Jessica Parker seems so much more sanguine about her age.

You know, I think we get too bogged down in numbers. Why try to quantify how you feel by identifying a number when that number is so unquantifiable? If you see what I mean. Numbers are supposed to be objective, not subjective. And they are, in the sense that two and two makes four. But to say I feel fifty is totally subjective when my fifty might mean something different than your fifty.

It seems we’re so hell bent to not be our mothers or grandmothers. If you want to talk numbers, my mum looked pretty good at sixty-five, started driving a tractor in her seventies, and first learned to use a computer at eighty-four. She was no Martha Stewart. But seriously, did she want to be? At eighty-one, she was too busy reading and gardening to worry about expanding her “brand.” Ha.

That’s my friend Marina below. Fishing for the first time ever. Doing something that, until recently, she would have said was well out of her comfort zone. Trying something new. Something that, back in her thirties or even her forties, she would not have imagined doing. And having fun doing it. Acting her age and feeling like a kid again.

Woman in a boat holding a fish.
My friend Marina acting her age.

I don’t know exactly where I’m going with this post, my friends. As usual, I’m all over the place. Talking about aging. Asking questions with no hard and fast answers.

Maybe that’s the point. There are no hard and fast answers. Like Gloria Steinem said in her guest appearance on that recent episode of And Just Like That... “aging is the new frontier.”

And I guess we’re all pioneers in our own journey. I’m thinking that we need to stop worrying if we’re acting our age. And just get on with whatever pleases us.

So, I don’t know what my “subjective age” is. I don’t know if I feel my age. Because I don’t know what sixty-seven is supposed to feel like. I don’t know if I look my age. Or if I’m acting my age. Or what someone might say if I asked them “How old do you think I am?”

And I’m trying my best not to care.

P.S. I looked high and low across the internet this morning and could not find any ad in which Rula Lenska said “How old do you think I am?” I found lots of the old Alberto VO5 ads which start with “I’m Rula Lenska.” So I had to conclude that she did not, after all, ask that question in an ad. But who the heck did? It’s going to drive me nuts of I don’t figure that out. Any ideas?

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39 thoughts on “On Acting Our Age”

  1. I think I would say that, on the whole, I tend not to act as a person of my age is expected to. Not that I am necessarily raucous but I see no reason not to dance for hours on end at parties, drinking beer (last weekend) when the opportunity presents. My behaviour is pretty much as it was when I was, say, in my 20s. I felt more oppressed by societal expectations when I was a mother to young children in my 30s and I found the implied restrictions very frustrating. Since the impossibility of reversing the ageing process is as plain as a pikestaff, why bother? Martha Stewart seems a bit peculiar to me, wishing to pretend to be a calendar pin-up. I have followed her career with interest over the decades and she is a mistress of image manipulation. Sometimes I flick through her Entertaining book out of sheer astonishment. As for Rula…some years ago, we were in a smart hotel in Liverpool and Rula came in with acting pals, post-performance. They sat together, drinking and chatting (loudly), Rula had a yapping lap-dog and, all in all, it was exactly as you might imagine a group of thesps to be. The hair was still glorious.

    1. Not sure how much of a role model Martha Stewart is for young women. Does anyone have the time or the inclination these days to follow her lead with respect to “entertaining?” I agree about the astonishment. Ha.

  2. I’m coming up with Oil of Olay for the “How old do you think I am?” question. There’s a fragment of melody going through my head: “Keep them guessing with Oil of Olay.” But I’m not sure if there was a particular actress who did those commercials. Further research required!

  3. I read the blog post you referenced by Alison Walsh several days ago. Certainly caused me to pause and think. Just having celebrated my 67th birthday, it was a timely post to read. I don’t feel 67, but I certainly note the physical and facial changes reflected in my mirror, so I must indeed be 67. I have noticed that my hands look like my mothers so thats a sure indicator of aging. I feel fine, actually ageless, with no specific number attached on most days. I have changed my views on a number of things, but essentially, my values are the same. I decided it’s really not worth focusing my energy on. I did hear my son tell his 4 year old that grandma was old so take it easy on the old girl. Now that rackled my nerves I must say. So to my 30 year old children I’m old. Ugh….

    1. Lisa McAllister

      If you care…gloves at night. They make cotton-y stretchy gloves like compression socks. Can still use your smart phone.

    2. My hands look like my mother’s too. And like my grandmother’s. But I find that kind of comforting. My mum once told me that she noticed her hands one morning while she was kneading bread. She said she looked down and thought, “My god. I have Mum’s hands.”

  4. My mother told me that when her father died, she was so concerned about how her mother would “get along”. She went so far as to move in with her for several months. Her mother was 60 years old. When my mother turned 60, she recalled this time. Why did she feel that her mother was too old to deal with this life change? Then, fast forward to when my father died. My mother was in her mid 70’s and had insisted that she would be fine continuing to live in their home, alone.
    I read an article about a 70 year old woman that had a car accident. It immediately conjured up a mental vision of a poor old soul. I quickly realized what I’d done. How could I feel that way when I was in my 70’s and not at all an old soul at heart. Why are we so tied to a number? Whether is related to age or our weight? What are we comparing this number to and for what purpose?

    1. I remember reading a line in a book recently, “Poor old guy. He must be seventy if he’s a day.” That made me swear, I’ll admit. My mum was 80 when my step-father died. She’d been so dependent on him for so many years, I was worried how she’d fare. I remember saying to Hubby that I knew she had the strength in her, but wasn’t sure if it was so long buried that she wouldn’t be able to find it. But after a few weeks she rallied and sent us all packing. She said she needed to solve her own problems herself.

  5. Yes , I remember Rula Lenska because she had enviable hair & a warm husky voice but I don’t remember the advert . It would be nice to think things had moved on & ageism isn’t so prevalent now but I think it’s worse . There are just so many older women , & men , having serious medical procedures in order to avoid looking older . I see all the famous folk with their look alike faces & feel quite sad for the loss of their individualism . Physical problems do affect me sometimes . On the good days I feel much as I did in my thirties but on the bad days …….☹️ For me , I’m not that concerned about how old I appear to others & I don’t have a bucket list but I do hope to remain curious about life . To still enjoy learning about the world around us , the people in it & those that have gone before us . I’d really hate to lose my curiosity .
    PS I’m getting a sudden urge to drive a tractor 😄

    1. Rula did have wonderful hair. And I agree about curiosity. Stu and I often talk about how glad we are that we’ve not lost our sense of wonder. Life would be pretty blasé if we couldn’t marvel at it. Mum was so proud of her tractor driving. And she saved Lloyd a lot of work. He used to do everything himself. Drive the tractor a ways down the field along the windrows, so that some hay was loaded onto the wagon by the old hayloading machine. Then stop, climb up on the wagon, move the hay around with his pitchfork so it was evenly distributed, climb down off the wagon, climb back onto the tractor, and do the whole thing all over again. When we were kids either my step-brother David or I drove the tractor. Mum said she always felt left out when we all went to the island haying. Lloyd’s haying set-up was like something out of the past. In fact it WAS out of the past. He found the old hayloader abandoned in someone’s field, brought it home, fixed it up, and never ever had to shell out for a hay-bailing machine. Plus haying loose is much easier to handle than those heavy bails. Easier for a one-man operation. I must see if I can find a shot of the set-up for you to show Max. Sometimes the other farmers would stop and chuckle when they saw Mum and Lloyd chunter past with their ancient machinery. Great memories for us riding home after dark on a summer’s night on top of a swaying load.

      1. Loved that Sue & yes , we’d like a pic . As a child in school holidays I was packed off to my dad’s sister where her & my uncle had a small farm in a village called Ellingstring in the dales . It was similar there . My favourites were the piglets &, bantams . I can still see my little Aunty Doris going at the hay with her pitchfork . A hard life but she wasn’t a complainer .

  6. I’m closing in on eighty; I feel like myself. I’m thankful to be lucky enough to have enough stamina to travel alone, learn new things and make new friends. And a lot of how one ages is just that – luck and fortunate genetics. I am mystified that “old” is seen as an ugly adjective when used to describe a person. I can think of so many much more ugly descriptive adjectives and all have to do with personality rather than physical characteristics or activity levels. Let’s embrace whatever we find as time marches on.

  7. Good subject. I’m 83. I know I don’t look it and I don’t “dress” or act it, but for the last couple of years I have truly felt it. Illness is our worst enemy and especially pain. I have recently had treatment for pain that has given me back my “joie de vivre”. I am so thankful and happy.

  8. Being in my mid 70’s I do find so many, many women who have issues with age. The hair color and plastic surgery industries make billions on older women not wanting to look older. And think about clothing ads, when do you see fashion models over 60 or with gray hair. Other then playing with grandchildren or gardening when are older women portrayed doing fun activities.
    Unfortunately age does pop into my head more often than I’d like. When I browse fashion sites I rarely see women who look like me. I think there is a constant reminder just how irrelevant older women are in many industries.
    What should really matter is how we feel and does my age restrict me from what I want to do or how I want to dress or look.
    I do want to continue to have fun, try new things and wear fashionable clothing.
    Such a wonderful topic for discussion, looking forward to reading what others think.

    1. I follow quite a few people on Instagram who are as old as I am, or older. I particularly love Linda Wright, an ex-pat American who owns a boutique in Paris. She has long grey hair, looks her age, but looks amazing. I think she must be in her seventies. I love her easy style. If you’re on IG look for her account. It’s @lindavwright.

  9. Your blog is quite addictive, Sue. I’m younger than most of your readers (early-to mid-fifties). I’ve typically gone left when most people have gone right, so to speak, so I don’t really worry much about what most people think. We’re all mostly constrained by our genetics in the end. I hope to keep my health and my mental faculties. The other thing I hope to keep is the openness that has guided my life. I like that people often stop me on the street to ask me things, or smile at me (I think I am smiling a lot without noticing it), and that people in their twenties and thirties still invite me for coffee or to the pub. I’ve always found the statement “she looks good for her age” ridiculous, especially as pertains to celebrities with blonde hair extensions at age sixty. We each have to choose what feels right for us. Ageism exists and sometimes it’s challenging to combat, but I think it’s easier if you are clear within yourself about who you are and what your guiding principles are. Interested to read the comments and discussion.

    1. Oh, I hate that statement “she looks good for her age” too. I know it’s supposed to be a compliment… but it’s certainly a backhanded one. I remember an episode of The View…which I normally didn’t watch because it annoys me. But on the episode Sharon Osbourne greeted Ali MacGraw, and she gushed, “Oh you look amazing!” MacGraw did look wonderful. But with her greying hair and unmistakeable lack of plastic surgery, how was she to respond to the obviously dyed and face-lifted Osbourne? I think she just smiled and thanked her. But it sure seemed like an awkward moment to me. Ha.

  10. As the daughter, grand daughter, great niece and niece of women that lived or are living well into their nineties ( and a Dad who will be 98 this year) I come from a group that never really felt or acted their age until it was time to leave the planet. A role model grand mother and her sister who drove their own boat through stormy Georgian Bay waters and ended up tying up at dock of a former Premier of ON…when asked if they were offered a drink while they waited out the storm my elegant grand mother snorted “are you kidding? They didn’t even offer tea”
    Soon as the skies cleared they were off not even waiting for help to untie the boat. Did I mention they were in their eighties?? An aunt went for her MSW at sixty five and a MFA in her late seventies.
    My darling MIL had culturally shaped ideas of aging..her shock at my forty eight year old arms in a sleeveless top was..shocking(BTW arms that were ‘guns’ after hefting my late in life babies) heck my mom and her sisters were skinny dipping in their seventies and eighties!! My MIL had a magazine/TV idea of how women ‘aged’ supported by a few quack Toronto MD’s with thick prescription pads so I have to forgive her..but she was a crack poker player into her eighties!
    Sometimes I look in the mirror and see a frizzy haired plumpish lil grandma of near 68. I know that she can swing a 43lb grandson around as easy as a feather, she walks 7k most days, takes no prescription medication, battened down the hatches during Fiona with the Atlantic Ocean at the door, manages a fair size house and side business, worked as a professional past 65 and through the worst of Covid and held the hands of the lonely and dying through that hell putting her unvaccinated hide at risk, is a devoted friend, wife,daughter, sister, cousin, mother and grand mother.
    Age is but a number, those who gain the ranks of the aged are singularly privileged, why waste it moaning about wrinkles and grey hairs and a little extra fluff at the hips?
    As my mother would often say “Life is for the living, enjoy it now before it’s gone” Then she’d have a G&T or if after Labour Day, a Manhattan! She left us @ 93!
    Sue, act your age! Not your shoe size LOL!

    1. You certainly lucked out in the gene department, my friend. My mum never acted her age. She may have looked it in later years, and probably felt her age physically, because she was plagued with terrible pain from arthritis for the last fifteen years of her life. But she was mentally sharp and fighting to the end.

  11. Back again after a quick earlier comment …

    Rather than feeling younger than my years (whatever that may mean), my perception of my age was dealt a blow last week with the diagnosis of an “elderly” medical issue that I didn’t expect to have at age 60. (My complacency is puzzling to me; I must have been in denial about my genetics!) It’s not life-threatening and should be manageable with medication, but I am still grappling with the feeling that my body has betrayed me. I’m sure that feeling of betrayal hits most of us, in varied ways, more than once in our later years.

    I feel fine, am grateful for all the ways my body serves me well, and am okay with my reflection in the mirror, whether it says I look older or younger than my chronological age. I also hope I’ll remain open to new experiences — I love the story of your mom’s tractor-driving!

  12. A very timely topic for me. I’ve just finished reading Dr. Becca Levy’s book, Breaking the Age Code. Fascinating! Her premise is that our beliefs about age and growing older affect how we age physically and mentally to such an extent that having positive age beliefs can add 7.5 years to our lives.

    1. I find that really interesting, Elaine. What bothered me about the research quoted in the article on Alyson Walsh’s blog was that the writer said “feeling younger” helps us to live longer. And when we are struck with illness or pain, it’s really hard to “feel” younger. Perhaps she meant what you said, that it’s our “beliefs” around aging that help us.

  13. So many questions, so few answers 😂
    With respect to And Just Like That, the episode may have been making fun at Carrie’s expense, making us laugh at how ridiculous the character’s behaviour can be.
    Thirty-five was a good year for me and in some ways, when I think about my attitudes, preferences and feelings, some things have stayed constant in the nearly 35 years since then. However, while I could say I feel 35, quite a bit has happened since then. I got married and had my daughter, my career progressed, I changed jobs (but not occupation) and retired a few years ago. I have aches and pains I didn’t have at 35 and I’ve become acquainted with depression, which is thankfully well-managed at present.
    Rather than focussing on how old I feel, or look, I prefer to focus on pursuing things I enjoy, and things that are good for my well-being, and not just stuff that needs to get done. Thanks for another thoughtful and wryly amusing post.

    1. Hopefully that’s what the makers of And Just Like That were trying to do. But the writer of the article in The Daily Beast was not giving the show the benefit of the doubt.

  14. Aging is a complicated subject. The bottom line is that we are so lucky to live into the 60s, 70s, 80, or 90s. Many diseases strike young and don’t allow people the good fortune to continue living.
    I must admit that if I am experiencing aches and pains after a hard day of physical labor, I’ll observe to my husband that I’m feeling old, just because in comparison with how I felt after a day of physical labor at age 30, there is a difference. I can see physical signs of aging – my hair is silver, my hands have sun spots, etc. However, I generally feel good and look forward to lots of experiences.
    There are stereotypes and I try to ignore them. I try to focus on my very good fortune to be alive and to take advantage of that fact. As soon as it cools down a little, I’m headed outside with a shovel to dig up a garden. It’s my way of dealing with the aging process.
    I love that your sister learned how to fish and had a great time. I love that your Mom learned how to drive the tractor and to hay and that it was such a great experience for her.

  15. Virginia Stewart

    Hmm. I don’t think we are obliged to Act our Age, what ever that means. We are so blessed to be alive! Enjoy every day and live it to the fullest of your ability. Do not stress about what may happen in the future as we age. Enjoy today!!! Live today! If we think negatively we will bring it to us.
    I always remember the messages of my favourite book, given to me by my boss many years ago, “Don’t stress the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff”. Love life, dress however you love to dress, and laugh!
    I am so thrilled to have found you site Sue, you speak my language!!!

    1. Thanks for the supportive comment, Virginia. I’m with you. Most days I don’t stress about the future. Or I try not to at any rate. 🙂

  16. I am almost 76 and if it weren’t for some aches and pains I feel the same as I have for decades. And thanks to being retired I now have the time to get out and do things. For my 70th birthday I gave myself sailing lessons and since then I’ve been able to crew for a friend off the west coast of Mexico for at least two weeks at a time. Life is amazing and I plan to stay busy and do as much as my body will allow me to do for as long as I can.

  17. Interesting comments on a thought provoking topic. I do think illness especially chronic illness plays a huge part in how we feel and look.
    I have just had a total right hip replacement and the difference in my well-being is off the charts. From being unable to walk without a limp and needing strong pain killers just to get through the day I can now walk, go shopping in person instead of on-line and return to a normal life. The lowest point was when I got shingles on my face with the most awful nerve pain.
    I had not realised how chronic pain had diminished me to such an extent that I had “aged” or at least that is the comment I hear most from others. The association of ill health with old age is sadly real but not inevitable. I am so fortunate to have a new lease of life when so many don’t and this to me is the hardest part of aging, losing people you love.
    Martha Stewart in a bikini seems so irrelevant and somehow rather sad.

    1. I’m so pleased that the hip replacement gave you back your life, Sue. When the doctors finally put my mum on something which truly helped her arthritis pain when she was admitted to hospital in 2020, she too had a new lease on life. For a while anyway. Her mobility increased, and she had one more really good, happy year before the arthritis caught up with her again. Pain is so very debilitating.

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